Colorado: The Rockies’ Ugly Step-Child of Contraception Access

It’s not often that Colorado is considered a less progressive state than its wild and woolley neighbor to the north, Wyoming.

On the matter of contraception, the Centennial State has a long way to go to catch up to the efforts of its fellow intermountain west states in preventing unintended pregnancies — especially among poor women and teenagers — and reducing abortions.
Source: Guttemacher Institute, State Center on Reproductive Health, 2006. Methodology

According to the Guttmacher Institute, Colorado spends a mere $33 on contraceptive services and supplies for women in financial need. In contrast, our mountain siblings Montana ($52), New Mexico ($53) and Wyoming ($112) spend far more to prevent unintended pregnancies.

So what gives in explaining Colorado’s poor performance in meeting the family planning needs of nearly 550,000 women of child-bearing age — of which 43 percent live well below federal poverty guidelines?

One explanation is that Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming have democratic governors who have not obstructed access to contraception, as Colorado’s former republican governor Bill Owens did throughout his eight year term which ended in January 2007.

Owens twice vetoed emergency contraception legislation and implemented a ban on state funding for family planning organizations linked to abortion providers among several acts — legally and rhetorically — to limit contraception access. 

The hostility toward women’s reproductive health also extends to the Colorado state legislature with a recent history of introduced, but defeated, bills to strictly define pregnancy, make performing an abortion a class 3 felony, and codify as a class 1 felony an attack on a pregnant woman that causes the death of a fetus. None of the bills made it out of committee yet lawmakers continue to push bills that promote a narrow, conservative ideological agenda. Likewise, the recently-formed Colorado for Equal Rights is circulating petitions to add a measure to the 2008 general election ballot to give state Constitutional protections to fertlized eggs. All of this in spite of majorities of Coloradans favoring pro-choice views. 

According to a 2006 Rassmussen poll, 54 percent of Coloradans oppose an abortion ban. Similarly, a 2005 SurveyUSA poll reported that Colorado is 15th in the nation for its pro-choice stance (61 percent of adults). Montana, New Mexico, and Wyoming share majority pro-choice views though at slightly lower percentages than Colorado.

Another equally plausible theory is that the other Rocky Mountain states wear their “libertarian-leanings” on their sleeves and legislate accordingly. While Colorado lawmakers tend to like to invoke small government rhetoric when it’s politically convenient, the reality is that conservative members of the state Republican Party, who dominated statehouse politics until recently, lose their libertarian “live-and-let-live” street cred when social issues arise. Reproductive health issues, in particular, strike a gong in the heads of the conservative caucus and legislative mayhem, like the bills mentioned above, quickly ensues.

The negative impact of the Colorado Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights (TABOR) — a constitutional amendment that strictly limits the amount of revenue the state can retain each year to pay its bills and support government services — also cannot be overstated in drastically slashing budget allocations to education, health care, and other important quality of life programs, including reproductive health, over the last decade and a half.

Wyoming and Montana, on the otherhand, are flush with cash thanks to a booming extractive energy industry and are able to fund state programs while stashing sizeable budget surplusses. New Mexico holds one of the largest state budget reserves in the nation. And as one of the most racially diverse among the intermountain west states, New Mexican reproductive health groups are implementing strong outreach activities to Hispanic, African American and Native American communities where contraception access tends to be low.

Whatever the explanation, Colorado has much work to do to reach the 44 percent of poor women and 51 percent of teenagers who are in need and not able to access publicly supported family planning services.